Backlinks are an important ranking signal that can drive real change for your website’s position on Google’s search results pages. According to research by Ahrefs, websites with 35 or more referring domains get ten times the traffic of those with just five referring domains. Why? Because those with more backlinks are seen as more authoritative and tend to rank higher on SERPs than their counterparts.
So what makes backlinks so crucial to ranking in organic search results?
It all boils down to how Google uses links as an indicator of a website’s authority.
If you know you need backlinks and an internal linking strategy but aren’t sure why, read on to uncover why Google started using backlinks as a ranking factor. Plus, I’ll share how link equity works, how to acquire link equity, and how to pass it.
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What Is Link Equity?
Link equity, which is sometimes called “link juice,” is a model SEOs use to think about and discuss the signals Google gets from links. Google has many algorithms (most famously PageRank) that use links as ranking signals, and all of them are secret. To understand how links impact a page’s rank, SEOs rely on link equity, which is based on the idea that web pages pass some of their authority and reputation to other pages by linking to them and that this can affect how pages rank.
This model tries to approximate the way Google uses incoming links — backlinks — to make judgments about your website’s reputation and decide whether to rank your page higher or lower on search engine results pages (SERPs).
Link Equity & PageRank
To understand link equity, we first need to nail down how (and why) Google factors backlinks into its ranking strategy.
Years ago, before Google was Google, co-founder Larry Page decided to study backlinks for his dissertation. He felt backlinks were similar to scholarly citations. In academia, when a paper is repeatedly cited, it’s seen as more authoritative. With the internet in its infancy, Page felt that knowing how many backlinks a web page received could show how authoritative and reputable other websites thought it was. He shared his insight with Scott Hassan, who then programmed the initial code for Google.
And just like that, PageRank was born. (Yes, the Page is for Larry Page, not for the pages of search results. I guess it’s fun that it worked out like that, though.)
According to Google, PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important and reputable websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.
Google search results used to depend heavily on PageRank. Now, PageRank is just one of the hundreds of metrics Google uses to rank websites. However, backlinks continue to play a vital role in how search engines understand the authoritativeness of your website. Each backlink you receive functions as a recommendation and passes a bit of link equity to your site.
How Is Link Equity Determined?
If you’ve talked to an SEO about backlinks before, you know that not all links have the same value. Because of this, link equity is not one defined number, and in fact, it’s pretty hard to quantify in a concrete way. Rather, the amount of link equity a link will pass depends on a variety of factors, including:
1. Site Authority
Websites that have a higher domain authority tend to pass more link equity via their external links. A newer website that has not yet proven itself as a reputable source may not pass as much link equity. However, if the link is contextually relevant, it can still pass some link equity.
Back in the days when search ranking was primarily based on the number of links pointing to a website, black-hat SEO consultants would often point hundreds of backlinks from shady websites to a page, and it’d land on page one of Google overnight.
Google noticed this exploitation and fixed the loophole to give searchers better results. Now they look at the relevance of the content linking to your website so they won’t get tricked by spammy links.
Google’s algorithm assesses the linking page and the anchor text it uses to determine whether it’s relevant to the destination page.
Crawlability refers to a search engine’s ability to index your content for its search results pages. For a link to be considered “crawlable,” the destination page must be indexable. That means it can’t be blocked by your robots.txt file or by a robots meta tag. If another site links to a page that’s blocked via your robots.txt file, Google will ignore the link, and you won’t receive any link equity.
4. Link Location
Google has confirmed it doesn’t matter if a link is located within the main body of the content on a page or on the footers or headers, as long as the page and anchor text is relevant to the linked page. However, Google does differentiate between those content areas. Links in the main content of the page tend to pass more link equity than one in a header or footer menu.
5. Link Frequency
Because each internal and external link on a page passes a bit of link equity to another page, having too many links on one page can dilute the amount of link equity that is passed.
How Do You Get Link Equity?
Trying to squeeze more link juice out of your site? (Sincerely sorry for the pun, trying to rank here.) It boils down to attracting quality backlinks. Each of those backlinks functions like a recommendation and passes a bit of link equity to the destination page, making it more authoritative.
Getting quality backlinks is a mixture of:
- Producing great content that other websites will want to link to, and
- attracting links to your web pages through a strategic link-building campaign.
Link building takes time. If you’re interested in increasing your link equity, investing in a link-building service can help remove some of the guesswork from the process and help you get a strategy in place more quickly.
How Do You Pass Link Juice?
Your site can pass link equity with internal and external links.
1. Internally Through Internal Linking
Some pages on your site will naturally get more links than others. You can then distribute that link equity to other pages on your site by linking to relevant pages from these highly linked-to pages.
Internal links also serve to showcase your site architecture, so you want to use them strategically to help Googlebot and other search crawlers understand how your content relates to each other. For example, your homepage, which will likely acquire the most link equity, should link to your service pages and your blog. Your blog posts should each link to other topically relevant pages as well as any related blog posts — as long as it’s useful for the reader.
Remember: Google and other search engines want to create a positive experience for searchers. If your blog post or page is overloaded with unnecessary links and it impacts the quality of their experience, it may affect your search engine rankings.
Also, consider the anchor text you use to link to your pages and posts. When possible (and appropriate), use the keyword you want that page or post to rank for as anchor text. This helps both Google and readers understand what they’ll find when they click your link.
2. Externally Through External Links
Any link on your website pointing to external resources will pass link juice to them unless you mark them as nofollow. Make sure you’re passing link equity wisely — only link to external resources that are reputable and provide value to your readers. Remember, your link is like an endorsement. Not only does it pass link equity to the destination page, but it also reflects back on you, too. Build trust with your readers by only linking to pages that are useful and trustworthy.
FAQs About Link Equity
How do you increase link equity?
When they first learn about link equity, most marketers immediately want to know how to get more.
You can grow your link equity by:
- Producing quality content other websites want to link to, and
- Acquiring backlinks from distinct referring domains.
Consider a link-building service to help you build your strategy.
How do you pass link equity?
You can pass link equity through internal links on your own site and by linking to external websites. Limit external links pointing to essential resources so you can conserve link equity.
Can you have too many links?
Generally, backlink quality is more important than backlink quantity. To increase your link equity, you want to acquire backlinks from authoritative, topically relevant referring domains. While you can’t technically have too many links, you can have too many bad links. Learn how to find bad links here. When the competition has many more links than you do, though, quantity becomes more important. Learn more about the quantity vs. quality debate here.
In terms of internal links, you want to pass link equity wisely. Only link to pages that are topically relevant and useful for readers. Internal links also help Google better understand your site structure. If you link to each of your pages from every other one of your pages, it doesn’t help showcase your most important pages or your true site architecture.
Do nofollow links pass link equity?
No, nofollow links do not pass link equity. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile, though. Nofollow links can help reinforce your website’s authority, build brand awareness, and bring you residual traffic.
Do links from social media pass link equity?
Most social media links are nofollow links, so they don’t pass link equity. However, they can still increase your brand’s visibility. Social signals are also believed to be a local SEO ranking factor.
Do redirects pass link equity?
Yes, redirects will help you transfer the link equity from the source page to the new destination page — just make sure you are using the right kind of redirect.
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